Tonight should have been a great night for the State of Hockey; one to celebrate for the ages. It should have been the first Minnesota Wild home game in over six months. It should have been a chance for 18,000 rabid fans cheering the biggest offseason in Minnesota sports history.
But it's not.
Thanks to the NHL owners locking out the player association, 2012-2013 is the third time in 18 years opening night is celebrated in a way less fitting than Def Leppard slamming the Stanley Cup upside down. There are no European day games, no Canadian nationalism and no American fans getting ready tonight to watch the top professional hockey in the world.
There is, meanwhile, plenty of posturing and PR spin from two sides about to reach the second month of a labor disagreement.
Right now is a disappointing time to be a fan and there is no way around it. While the ongoing labor situation means there is a lack of actual hockey being played, no one wins. Not the NHL, whose relevance continues to slowly go down each day, and certainly not teams like the Wild who have had trouble in this market staying relevant.
Minnesota may be the State of Hockey but that doesn't mean it's a Wild State. It's a fact that we here at First Round Bust like as much as the NHL we cheer for but there's only so much. There's only so much a four season playoff drought and a new team whose honeymoon is over can do before malaise kicks in. There are only so many "the team tried hard in a 6-1 loss" articles one can read before tuning out begins. With three other pro teams and a major college fighting for coverage in the Twin Cities and outstate, it doesn't take much for irrelevance to kick in.
And that is what makes tonight's non-celebration even more depressing.
Signing Zach Parise and Ryan Suter to matching 13 year, $98 million dollar deals was supposed to end the malaise and irrelevance that took over the end of last season. July 4th was a magnificent day in Minnesota sports history as suddenly a team that couldn't buy coverage, beat the Wolves in TV ratings or sell 64 season tickets in honor of Mikael Granlind were hotter than an Arizona rooftop. Suddenly the "ball guys" of the media were giving their two cents on the Wild's chances this year to win the Northwest.
Suddenly people were paying attention.
It's remarkable how low things were before July 4th. Since the signings, Minnesota has sold 4,000 season tickets which is even more unbelievable when just three years ago there were 16,500 STH (in a 18,064 seat arena) and a 6500 person waiting list. Now Parise #11 and Suter #20 jerseys are everywhere, mixed in with the old standby #9, #22 and #96, as lapsed Wild fans (and some new ones) are willing to give the team another chance.
That should be happening tonight. Instead both Twin Cities papers are Wild-free today and the few remaining blogs struggle to come up with interesting material or focus on something else. You can only do so much with a six month off-season.
I understand that the fans during the Lockout are the equivalent of children in a divorce. It's not our fault Papa Craig and Mama Zach can't come up with a HRR number that fits both of their wallets. They still love us - or so we get told almost every day - but while the owners and players fight it out we're picking up some bad habits on the street.
The hardcore hockey fans - the ones who have spent the last six months waiting for tonight's home opener against Colorado, the ones who spent May and June following NHL Draft prospects as their postseason, the ones who somehow watched until the end of last season - will be fine. They've been through this before and will be at Mariucci, Amsoil or one of a dozen community rinks throughout the state. There is even the opportunity to spend money on an AHL feed to see the Aeros and a majority of the team's prospects.
But that's the hardcore fans. The casuals - those who just got back into the Wild, the ones who made July 2012 easily the best month in First Round Bust history - they have plenty of other options. Instead of filling the Xcel Energy Center or tuning on the TV to watch Minnesota play, life goes on. Sundays are for the Vikings while the Timberwolves made their own moves to make noise in the off-season. The NHL might think it has the greatest fans in the world but teams need the casuals and the league needs to find ways to hook fans in and corporations to spend money on tickets and advertising.
Because with no hockey and coverage, they will go elsewhere.
Two weeks ago I was among the hundreds of Wild fans sitting down at the Xcel Energy Center watching the Houston Aeros scrimmage. It was a major change from being there two months before when 7,500 fans spent a July morning watching most of the same players. While July almost filled the lower bowl, September saw five sections open. That didn't matter to those there that got a chance to see the future of the team but there should have been more. The same goes for the season ticket holders today who get a chance to skate on the Xcel Energy Center ice.
It's a nice substitute, a distraction from the run-up to tonight, but there should have been more. Having a labor dispute right after the biggest off-season is not the Wild's fault (and sadly fitting given Minnesota sports history) but there couldn't be a worse time for the owners to lock out the players. The celebration of July 4th and return of NHL hockey should be going ahead full-steam tonight at the Xcel Energy Center. The State of Minnesota should be focused on the Wild rather than hope diminishing returns won't kill the momentum the team had when the Lockout is finally ended. It shouldn't have to hope and beg to bring back the "ball guys" and casual fans who bought #11 jerseys and promptly left them in their drawers.
And I should be writing about our expectations and analyzing the new-look Wild instead of this.